1 Lucky You
The National’s first two albums are their “lost” albums. But, as guitarist Aaron Dessner noted, they served a purpose “We made those records ourselves, started a label, put them out and fell on our face for a couple of years and it taught us a lot. Without those first two records we would never have got to Alligator.” He’s right: among the sonic debris of Americana and experimental rock there are certainly gems to be found and the musical ancestry of traits the band would perfect on Alligator and Boxer can be found. Not least Lucky You, the gorgeously swelling closing track on their second album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, which contains many of the hallmarks of the National’s heartbreaking music. It’s a track that can be seen as a precursor to songs like Boxer’s Green Gloves or Slow Show. There’s Matt Berninger’s rich, whiskey-soaked baritone as he croons “You own me/ There’s nothing you can do,” turning the traditional message of a love song on its head. Underneath, delicate piano softly builds to help create a resigned moment of sublime beauty. A “gorgeous train wreck”, as it’s been called. And there we have the National.
2 About Today
There are just 87 words in About Today, and not a single one is wasted. Its sparse yet tender minimalism and suffocating build-up so perfectly capture how it feels to be in a relationship teetering on the brink of collapse that it’s devastating. It makes About Today the centrepiece of the Cherry Tree EP. In retrospect it feels like Cherry Tree was a crucial landmark for the National. It features a version of All The Wine, which would be one of the highlights on Alligator, and seems to signpost where the National were going rather than point to where they had been. “I think for us Cherry Tree was when we started to figure out ‘Ok, this is what we can do’”, bassist Scott Devendorf has told me.About Today is a work of despair, capturing that clawing late-night feeling of intense loneliness, and the fear of broaching the subject. “How close am I to losing you?” asks Berninger as a bed of gentle guitar and violins interweaves between his vulnerable pleading. But there are no answers, no real sense of relief. Now when they play it live it climaxes as a beautiful wash of sound, but on record it’s all tension and little release. And it’s this unresolved tension in the music thatunderpins so many of their songs.
3 The Geese of Beverly Road
Alligator is the album that made the National. (It’s probably my favourite record of all time: a companion in helping to define the struggles of youth and growing up.) It also saw them make the leap to a bigger label: Beggars Banquet, and subsequently 4AD. Perhaps the album’s greatest strength is in its nocturnal, claustrophobic mood . The sound is more focused, the Dessner twins’ guitars coming to the forefront, Bryan Devendorf’s drums higher in the mix, helping the band fashion their own shadowy world full of tensions and anxieties. It paints in deeper shades than they had before and Berninger’s intricately thought out character vignettes hit home more sharply. Most importantly, it gets the balance right: it’s a record that ebbs and flows magnificently. The Geese of Beverly Road is a perfect example, a moment of tender optimism in an album of shade, as Berninger sings: “We’re the heirs to the glimmering world.” As he does so, he captures those fleeting moments of being totally happy and free of worry. “I was sitting outside one night watching a bunch of kids running up and down Beverly setting off car alarms. The song is theirs,” he has said.
4 Mr November
Alligator’s closing track, Mr November, is the moment the album’s suppressed worry and frustrations are released in an explosion of serrated guitar and propulsive drums. “I WON’T FUCK US OVER! I’M MR. NOVEMBER!” Berninger screams. “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders!” he declares. By the time it has finished you feel like the band has given everything, strained every sinew and torn themselves apart. Which was partially true. “Frankly it was a very difficult time,” Aaron Dessner said. “Mr November is partly about John Kerry, part Matt – the anxiety and pressure leading up to the [2004 presidential] election and also the end of the album.” And just to underline the political context, in 2008 the band also printed T-shirts with Barack Obama’s face above the words “Mr November”. When performed live, the song is even more frenetic, Berninger marching dramatically through the crowd, screaming the refrain. Though he admitted to me he may have to stop it: “Especially in the UK, there have been some attempts to take my pants off. It’s hard to sing a song when you’re desperately trying to keep from having your belt undone by some drunk dudes.”
5 Fake Empire
With Mr November bookending Alligator, then the opening song of Boxer, Fake Empire, becomes its immediate successor. It makes sense – it’s another song with a distinctly political slant. From its first plaintive piano chords and Berninger’s lyrics about “picking apples, making pies” it’s clear that there is a focus on characters attempting to forget about the problems and politics of the outside world and focus on domesticity. The song would later be used in an Obama campaign video – but it’s just as much about apathy under George Bush. Coincidentally, an Ohio University student group ended up using the track in a pro-Mitt Romney video and were forced to apologise to the band after being reprimanded by Berninger. “Our music was used without our permission in this ad. The song you’re using was written about the same backward, con game policies Romney is proposing.” Fake Empire’s arrangement and melody are notable for the use of polyrhythms, and for the lush fanfare, written by longtime friend and collaborator Padma Newsome, that lifts the song up to its shimmering dreamlike crescendo.
6 Slow Show
Despite the band’s misgivings – Berninger memorably said onstage “This is called Slow Show, don’t play it at your wedding ’cos … it references my dick” – this is the National song many couples have chosen for their first dance. The closing coda of “You know, I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you,” (which sees Berninger plagiarise himself, borrowing from the song 29 Years on their debut) makes it the choice for newlyweds. It’s classic National, centred on the intimate feelings of a man falling in love with the woman of his dreams while simultaneously worrying that his responsibilities will cause him to lose her. Over guitar, dream-like drones and a twinkling piano, Berninger wonders aloud, “I want to hurry home to you/ Put on a slow dumb show for you/ Crack you up.” Again, it’s about escape, the search for contentment that permeates Boxer: Berninger has described the lyrics “as wanting to get out of some anxiety-filled public situation, where there’s a party or something and you just want to escape and be home, close the doors with someone that you really care about and just be stupid and laugh”. And never have the band captured that sentiment so stunningly.
7 Blank Slate
There have been some great National B-sides, but Blank Slate stands out. Indeed, the first three songs on The Virginia EP – a collection of covers, B-sides and demos to accompany the admittedly pretty ropy documentary A Skin, A Night – could easily have been singles themselves, with longtime collaborator Sufjan Stevens featuring on You’ve Done It Again, Virginia. Yet it pales in comparison to the brooding Blank Slate with its bizarre lyrical allusions (Berninger’s head is like a “buzzing three-star hotel”) and spidery guitar. The track was the B-side to Mistaken for Strangers and reworks the lyrics from Keep It Upstairs from the Abel EP. Its whirring, angular guitars and Bryan Devendorf’s typically stellar drumming soundtrack Berninger’s droll tale of finding love by kidnapping someone famous, fighting off armies with tennis rackets, and tackling young girls off bicycles.
8 Terrible Love (alternate version)
While Alligator and Boxer saw the dripfeed of adoration for the band grow, High Violet saw the National go stratospheric. Its opening track, Terrible Love, is one of the heaviest things the National have recorded, dense and knotty, a layered, muted beast that threatens to climax but never quite delivers – falling into itself in a cloudy concoction of echo and guitar. It’s a song of paranoia and pathos: Berninger sings of “walking with spiders” and not being able to get to sleep without a little help. Again it focuses on a topic Berninger constantly returns to, capturing that apprehension at the start of a relationship. The idea of oceans and water introduced here would also recur throughout the album. This alternate version, however – found on the expanded version of High Violet – is altogether cleaner and more triumphant, toning down the guitar distortion and instead ending in a rush of horns and chiming guitars. It means it looks outwards rather inwards and, as a result, feels more exultant and optimistic than the album’s vision.
If there’s one song that demonstrates the taxing process of the National’s album-making – the lengths (and arguments) they go to create the exact sound they want – it’s Lemonworld. The song was rewritten 80 times before they settled on the original version. In fact Nicholas Dawidoff’s New York Times profile of the group equates the troubled history of Lemonworld with their slow ascent to success. And as that article put it, it’s easy to see the band “as a group of skilled chefs mak[ing] a sandwich together; even in a BLT, they can foresee endless possibilities”. The tortuous process of attempting to get the song precisely right meant it almost never happened. It was called Wrath, it was called You and Your Sister, and even when they finally decided on the original version, Berninger complained, “Now it’s the ugliest, worst-mixed, least-polished song on the record, and it took the longest to get there.” The result is that Lemonworld (“an invented, sexy, weird place where you can escape from New York,” Berninger said, if you were unsure) does almost sound like a demo, but therein lies its beauty. It’s laidback almost to the point of being horizontal, Berninger crooning, “Put flowers in my mouth and we can say we invented a summer lovin’ torture party.” It returns to the idea of pretence: “You can’t deal with the reality of what’s really going on, so let’s just pretend that the world’s full of bluebirds and ice skating.” And this is mirrored sonically: from the first murky guitar strum it slowly swells and mesmerises but there’s nowhere to hide in the bright sunshine.
10 Pink Rabbits
With their popularity at an all-time high after the success of High Violet (it went top five in both the UK and the US) it would have been easy for the band to have hidden behind abstractions and metaphor. Yet their most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me, is not only theirmost open album, but also a refinement of everything that had come before. It’s the glowing Pink Rabbits – a love song about a relationship that has fallen apart and come back together, and one of the most heartswelling moments in a career punctuated by them – that guides Trouble Will Find Me towards its shimmering conclusion. While touring High Violet, Berninger had become obsessed with Roy Orbison and you can hear it here, his vocals more prominent. The song has six or seven melodies within it, and Berninger notes that he wrote eight different songs to the music. Over brooding but warm piano, strings and muffled drums, he sings “I’m so surprised you want dance with me now/ I was just getting used to living life without you around.”